Updated: Jul 8
Walking down Panama Road along the busy commercial strip of Arugam Bay where the Spice Trail is, someone may easily miss out on what lies beyond these cafés, hotels, surf shops, and restaurants. But, that’s where the best of the bay is. Arugam Bay— or, the Ulla village as its people call it— only started becoming a surf village from the early 1960’s when wave hunters travelling Sri Lanka first discovered its world-class point break. It is in the next sixty-plus years that Arugam Bay changed to incorporate travel and surf into its culture in a big way, slowly developing the popular commercial strip that you see today. But, beyond it, lies incredible expanses of nature and elements of a history that goes back several hundred years; along with cultures, lifestyles, and livelihoods that have little to no involvement with surf or travel experiences that many people now associate with Arugam Bay. This story is about this place beyond the surf village.
The name ‘Arugam’ itself links back to some interesting stories about this beautiful place. One story says that the village earned its name for the abundant growth of a sacred grass variety. And no, it’s not the sacred grass you’re thinking about. ‘Arugam pul’— Cynodon dactylon, although no longer abundant in the region, was widely used in local herblore and worship rituals once upon a time. Another story, where the lines between recorded history, legend, and myth get blurry (but, we’re still quite partial to because it involves sacrifice, a princess, and love at first sight), goes like this; Around 150 BC, Sri Lanka had three ‘countries’ as Ruhunu, Maya, and Pihiti (Raja Rata). Current Arugam Bay belonged to the Ruhunu kingdom. When the Maya country princess Vihāra Maha Dēvi was sacrificed to the sea during a tsunami to appease the angry ocean (as you do?), she is said to have landed in this village. Hearing the news, Kāvantissa— the Ruhuna king at the time— came looking for her and stopped a few villages too soon. When he asked about the princess—‘Ko Kumari?’ (Where is the princess? in Sinhala), the phrase became associated with the place, and later became shortened to Komari that still lies twenty-something kilometers north of Arugam Bay. The villagers in Komari pointed towards current Arugam Bay and said ‘Ara gam’ (in those villages), which is what is thought to have become ‘Arugam’. The king found Vihāra Maha Dēvi, fell in love, and ended up marrying her. Later, he built the temple ‘Muhudu Maha Viharaya’ to remember where she landed, leading to their fateful meeting. Their wedding is said to have taken place in Lahugala, about twenty kilometres north-west, where the king built a monument and a temple that still stands today as the Magul Maha Viharaya. Both structures are now archaeologically protected sites; they are worth a visit if you’re into history and exploring ancient architecture.
Throughout those centuries, before the travel and tourism scene exploded here, the major livelihoods in Arugam Bay and around were fishing, farming, artisanry, and hunting. Although these traditional lifestyles seem to have taken a backseat now, they are far from being lost. Even in the height of the travel season from April to October when the whole area seems to be giving precedence to its visitors, these other lifestyles and traditional livelihoods remain very much present in the undercurrents, maintaining the deeper foundations of the local communities.
Talking to Zulfi of the ‘Wasteless Arugam Bay’ project, who spent some time researching the history and traditional lifestyles in his hometown here, we found out how the landscapes and nature in the region inspired the traditional livelihoods. The forest landscapes, known as ‘mullai’, were mostly inhabited by hunters and some farmers. Zulfi and many others think that the word ‘mullai’ is what became ‘Ullai’ or ‘Ulla’ naming the Arugam Bay village.
The sandy landscapes with coconut palms by the sea are called ‘naidal’ and were almost exclusively inhabited by fisherfolk; Today, although the beach is primarily used for hospitality, you can still see our fishing community there, hard at work throughout the seasons. Many hotel-owners also have fishing family roots that they proudly hold on to, showing just how much this community remains part of this landscape while adapting to changing times without losing their heritage.
Going inland, the bushy landscape with hard, irrigable soil called ‘maradam’ is where most farmers gravitate towards. Even today, these farmlands provide some of the delicious heirloom rices and vegetables that make up the local cuisine. Barely outside Arugam Bay, you can see some amazing sights of farms and paddy fields— especially in the off-season when the paddies roll into the horizon in a shade of green that has an uncanny ability to jack up your dopamine levels. Kurinji— the mountainous landscapes further inland was where most makers and artisans like potters, textile weavers, and basket makers lived. These communities have somewhat dispersed now; but, signs of good artisanry are still there if you walk through small village markets, and even the main commercial stretch of Pottuvil town where you find locally made mats, pots, baskets, and the famous eastern handlooms.
Arugam Bay has certainly changed over the years; but, there are parts of it that have almost stood still in time for several hundred years. We love that this place still holds on to the harmony between humans and nature where people work with their surroundings rather than against it. To our guests, these landscapes and the lifestyles that they inspire hint at great avenues to travel off the beaten path, and discover a whole new experience. If you want to see more of this not-so-secret but secret side of Arugam Bay, don’t wait for the east coast season to make it here. Come by when the bay is quieter and its synergy with the natural world is at its prime. With most people in the area quietly working on their traditional livelihoods and simply living at a gentler pace, it makes quite the blissful setting to find your own natural rhythm; to settle somewhere nice to work a little, and to watch the world go by a little.
Special thanks to Zulfi M. M. Faizer of Wasteless A’bay for sharing his stories with us, Rice & Carry for connecting the dots, and Raffaella D’Agostino of East Surf Cabanas who has been documenting the lesser-known Arugam Bay for years through her photography.